Sunday, 6 April 2008

Final Word

Well folks, we've been back in England for a month now. Loads of people have been asking us, "Did you enjoy the trip ?" and "Are you happy to be back ?". Short answers to the questions are, " Yes, it was fantastic. " and " No, of course not. It's miserable."
After six months travelling around doing and seeing exciting things on a daily basis, coming back to the drudge of work has hit us hard. We have to get up early every morning ! We have to drive to work with hundreds of other people on crowded roads ! When we get to work, people are stressed and we're expected to be stressed too ! Bah ! It's a mug's game alright.
At least Honda F1 do seem to be starting to get their act together which makes everybody's hard work a little less pointless.. Oh, and Athena seems to have found a short term job printing money for some mugs in Swindon, or at least that seems to be the practical outcome of the exercise.
On the plus side, it's been great to see all our mates and Oxford is as lovely as ever. We woke up this morning to find that it had snowed overnight, so we look a stroll through the University Parks, through into the city centre. Here are some photos.

Here's a view from our house over St Hugh's College on the left and of the house on the right.












Here's a compare and contrast of the River Cherwell as it runs through the park. The shot on the left was taken today and the shot on the right was taken in May last year.












On the left below is a photo taken across the University Parks with Keble College in the distant backgroun. In the middle is a view of Merton College taken from Christ Church Meadows. On the right is Saint Mary's church.Very pretty.

The pubs are open now, so it's time to indulge in a snifter of the beer I was hankering so much for whilst on the other side of the planet. Perhaps we can start planning our next trip over a pint or two of Scrutock's Old Dirigable ! Maybe things aren't so bad after all....

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Bintan, Indonesia

Life has been hard on the road over the last five months ( I feel your sympathy ), so we jumped on a ferry for a couple for hours and sailed to Bintan for a couple of days of beach R&R.

The trip across the Malacca Straits was bumpy to say the least, but it was an amazing journey as we passed through one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Pretty much all sea trade between the Orient and the Occident, other than that to the Good Ole U S of A, has to pass through the narrow bit of water between Sumatra and Singapore ( hence Singapore's strategic importance ). The water was so full of huge oil tankers, bulk carriers and container vessels, that the ferry had to weave it's way across to Bintan island. We would not have come off well in a collision with ships this size ! Interestingly, some of the ships were registered in Douglas, Isle of Man. I doubt they'd fit in the Irish Sea, never mind Douglas harbour.



"Bintan lsland is the largest of 3,200 islands in the Riau Archipelago and the 3rd largest of 27 provinces in Indonesia. It was on the island of Bintan that the Sultan of Malacca found refuge from Portuguese attack in the 16th century, mapping tales of legendary importance when Bintan grew as the centre of the powerful Johor Riau Sultanate." Which is all very nice, but to be honest, all we wanted somewhere to laze on a beach for a couple of days before heading back to the drizzle of Blighty. And we got that in spades. It's a real island paradise just like in the brochures. Food was good too. The Indonesian's like it a bit spicy ( arse like a dragon's nostril ! ), but the flavours were great.
Anyway, a couple of days here were great, but now we have to head back home.....


video

Singapore

Singapore may be an equitorial island republic just off the coast of Malaysia ( you could throw a stone across ) , but it has a very Western feel to it. The population of four and a half million is predominately of Chinese origin, with a good lump of Indian, Indonesian and Malaysian thrown in for good measure, but the official language is English - a hangover from being a major naval and commercial centre in the British Empire. Pip pip !
The island was apparantly a small fishing port when, in 1819, at the behest of the British East India Company, Sir Stamford Raffles turned up and reckoned, that with a bit of guidance, the place had the makings of a major strategic port. By the time the island became independant in the 1960's, it was a huge urban centre with global military and trading importance.
It's a pretty affluent place, as evidenced by the huge skyscrapers in the centre, but it is run with considerable social conscience. Ethnicities that under colonial rule were loosely segregated into seperate areas of the city are now encouraged to mix. Don't drop your litter here, or deface a wall with graffiti or you'll face a $1000 fine. Try and smuggle in some Bolivian Marching Powder and you get the chop. Ouch.










Anyway, enough waffle. It's a really interesting place to spend a few days. Beautiful colonial buildings jostle with modern office blocks for space. Restaurants abound, are generally very cheap, and choice is abundant with Indian, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and British ( sticky toffee pudding - Yes !!! ) readily available. The people are polite and helpful. The public transport works. The weather is a touch too warm, but that's better than a touch too cold. Unfortunately, Singapore is also great for shopping. Every silver lining has a cloud.. . . .. .

There is also a night zoo. Great idea this, but unfortunately we went at the weekend... along with the rest of Singapore. Arse. Enjoyed eating the animals much more, especially the Chilli crab from Jumbo seafoods ! Mmmmmmm.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Christchurch

Final stop of our New Zealand tour is Christchurch, biggest city in the South Island at two hundred thousand inhabitants. A few of which we know. Graham and Maree are mates of Becky's from London and they very kindly put us up for three nights. Bill and Sarah are mates of mine from years back when I worked in Bicester for a company called Reynard Racing Cars.

Our first day here was a bit grim as the weather was awful. Never mind, we just jumped into the car and drove into the countryside to Hamner and then sat in some goethermal pools for the afternoon. The rain was a bit cool in the top of your head, and we all stunk of sulphur afterwards, but not a bad way to spend a rainy day.

The second day was much nicer, so we met up with Bill, his mate Tom and his daughter Niamh for a tour of Christchurch. The town centre is a bit like Oxford or Cambridge, with nice parks, rivers and old buildings. They even have folks with punts on the river.


After that we headed up Summit Road. Like most places in New Zealand, Christchurch is only a stone's throw from a volcano crater, and the top of this one gives great views out over the city and the Canterbury Plains beyond. Just on the horizon, are the Southern Alps, about fifty miles away. Me and the Dog got roped into a game of tig with Niamh which left me panting and the Dog stuck in a bus shelter window....


So, that's it for New Zealand. We've just dropped Becky and The Dog to the airport so they can head off to Oz. We'll grab a bit of lunch and then we'll be back to the airport for our flight to Sydney and onto Singapore.



Here's a sweep from the volcano crater rim down onto the city. For those that know Bill the Mill, you'll note that he is still wearing the same pair of shorts he was wearing when he left England about eight years ago...




video

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Dunedin

Well, we needed to start heading back towards Christchurch as our flights to Singapore draw closer, so we decided to make camp in Dunedin. Dunedin was originally set up by Scots immigrants and was to be named New Edinburgh, but to avoid confusion, they decided to adopt the Gaelic version, Dunedin, instead...

We were all a bit weary and The Dog had infected some of us with his filthy cold, so we took a lazy train trip up the Taieri Gorge. Nice 1920's carriages, nice cups of tea, nice gorge and generally a nice day out for tired folks. Nice. Oh and seeing as Dunedin is the Kiwi home of Cadbury's, we also indulged in a tour of their factory. Very nice.

The following day was a bit drab, but we headed out up the Otago Peninsular in hunt of Royal Albatrossesesesessssseses. Must admit, I thought this was going to be a bit of a wild goose chase ( ho ho ho ! ), but we actually got to see three nests, one of which was close enough to allow us to spot the incumbant portly chick, and we were also treated to a flying display by up to four adult birds. These puppies have about a ten foot wing span ( and a massive aspect ratio for all you aerodynamicists out there ) and seem to expend virtually no energy as they float by at a considerable lick. Apparantly once the juvenile birds leave their nesting site, they will not return to land for a minimum of about three or four years. Watching a very large seabird try and land for the very first time is a real treat once they do decide to return....

Here's ( very ) brief flypast by one of the beeeg birds.

video

Monday, 11 February 2008

Mt Aspiring National Park - Routebourn Track

About an hour up the lake from Queenstown is the start of the Routebourn Track. It's a long distance hike along a mountain range that usually takes about four or five days to complete. We only had a spare day, so just cantered up to the second hut. Again, hugely impressive scenery. Have a look at these views.

Everyone's legs are now pretty much back to South American standard, though mine and The Dog's guts continue to expand due to excessive consumption of pies and beer. Mmmmm, pies.......

Queenstown

Queenstown nestles down between some pretty huge mountain ranges at the head of a lake. Great location for skiing in the winter. In the summer, the town is just as busy because Queenstown was the birthplace of Bungy. AJ Hackett set up the first commercial jump from a local bridge over a deep river gorge about 20 years ago and this has spawned a huge industry in the town that takes substantial amounts of tourist's cash in return for scarying them witless in some manner or other.


Athena wasn't too interested in this ( underpant stocks are running low ) and I've previously bungied, river sledged etc, so I decided to try a paraglide from the top of Coronet Peak. It was an awesome experience. Slightly nerve-wracking as you try to sprint off the top of the mountain, but once you're airborne it's a very serene experience and the views were exceptional.


While I was doing this, Becky and Athena took a light aircraft flight across to Milford Sound ( Dog and I had done this years back and although expensive, heartily recommended it ). Once there they took a boat for a short cruise along the sound to enjoy the scenery from sea-level. The views were right up there with Patagonia. Helps to get such good weather though !


video

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Mt Aspiring National Park - Rob Roy Glacier

I suspect the Scots might have named this glacier... After about 30km of rally driving through fords and suchlike on gravel roads we got to the head of a river valley. It was a steep hike up for about one and a half hours, but once up to the top of the valley we had magnificent views of the Rob Roy Glacier. Reminded us all of the French Glacier in Patagonia in that it just seemed to be stuck onto the side of the mountain. Very impressive. Lots a Keas wondering around too ( Keas are big fat mountain parrots with huge curved beaks, that like stealing food from tourists - gits) . We're now starting to feel a bit more 'match fit' after the beer and lard excesses of Australia.

video

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Fox Glacier - Mt Cook and Mt Tasman


It was a long slog down the west coast of the South Island to get us down to the Fox Glacier. Along the way we had to deal with swarms and swarms of Road Maggots ( ponderous caravans and motorhomes in Kiwi parlance ), but at least they gave us something to do along the journey.....
We got up early and headed to Lake Mattherson as it was rumoured to be the best spot for views of Mt Cook ( highest in NZ ) and Mt Tasman. Here's the view we got. Whatcha reckon ? Worth it ?

After that it was a quick drive and a walk up a valley to see the Fox Glacier. It wasn't as pretty or as impressive as the glaciers we saw in Patagonia ( spoilt aren't we ? ), but it was great to be able to walk up close to the snout. As with the Patagonian glaciers, you could hear it popping and creaking as it melted in the sun. Don't get too close !


Here's a quick view of Mt Tasman ( left peak ) and Mt Cook ( right peak )

video

Abel Tasman National Park

Right at the top of the South Island is the Abel Tasman National Park. It's mainly a coastal park, so we hired some kayaks and spent a day paddling along the bays and around the islands. All was fine in the bays, but out in the exposed bits of ocean ( especially the 'Mad Mile' ) things got a bit hilly ! Athena was up front so very generously broke most of the waves with her face, so I only got some mild spray in the chops.....

We were cream-crackered by the time we got to our hostel for the night - a very cramped catamaran houseboat. There were eleven of us crammed into each of the two hulls with no room to swing a pair of underpants, never mind a cat. Having said that we all slept very well apart from when the pump for the lavs started up everytime somebody flushed it......
Next day was spent hiking further along the coast. Beautiful forest and coastal scenery. I can't believe I didn't come here on my previous trips to New Zealand !

The trip back to the hostel was via water taxi. It was a high speed roller coaster of a ride through three metre ocean swells. I swear our spines had shrunk by several mm by the time we got back to land. Interestingly, the method of 'docking' the boat was to surf it into the beach aiming at a trailer attached to the back of a tractor. The boat hit the trailer with sufficient momentum to wedge it on, leaving the skipper the simple task of hopping onto the tractor and driving us up the beach ! I reckon that might have taken some practice !
Here's a view of the beach where we spent the night. Nice eh ?

video

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Picton


Picton is the port on the North of the South Island where the ferry ejects folks from the South of North Island. Ahem....

Tiny little town, but very pretty. There's not much to do here, other than head to Marlborough which is one of New Zealand's most famous wine producing areas. We enjoyed an afternoon tour around some of the local wineries. I think Dog and I were a little bermused by it all. Overtones of gooseberry ? Complex fruit finish ? Who are they trying to kid ? Where's my pint ?

We headed over towards the Abel Tasman National Park next for some kayak action ( coming soon ! ). The journey was though some awesome scenery.

Wellington

It was a long slog to Wellington, but the city was a pleasant surprise. We actually stayed in a suburb called Plimmerton 'cos the accommadation in the city was all booked up as the International Rugby 7's tournament was on. This was actually a blessing in disguise as it gave the city a real buzz. We had a great night out eating HUGE mussels ( see photo ) and drinking fine ales and wine. On the way back to the station we enjoyed a free Elvis concert ( don't think it was the real one - he's still working in a chip shop in Huddersfield ). Top quality entertainment that nearly made us miss the last train home.
We had a cruise up to the top of a local hill the following day and what a view ! It a top location for a city, though like most parts of New Zealand, it seems to be smack bang on top of some form of tectonic tumult ( Teutonic too - bloody Germans tour groups again). Our ferry wasn't sailing until just after lunch so we went for a stroll through the city centre. This was very pleasant, but it turned into comedy as we bumped into swarms of fans heading to the first day of the rugby. There's a tradition of dresssing up and they didn't dissappoint. Barney Rubbles, Naughty Nurses and Pervy Police etc etc etc. Great vibe. Shame we had to head off really as tickets were still available. Turns out the Kiwis won the tournament. Shame they can't do as well with the 'proper' game. Snigger !
The ferry to the South Island took about 3 hours to cross the Cook Straight to Picton. The crossing was pretty smooth, but for most of the voyage the boat had a 10° list to port due to the extremely high winds. Made putting your cuppa tea down a bit tricky. Lots of potential for spillage. The scenery was like a small scale version of Patagonia. Have a look at the vid below.

video

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Tongariro Crossing

After the excitement of the rafting in Rotorua, we headed further south for a couple of hours until we hit a town called National Park ( cunning name huh ? ). The reason for stopping here was to walk the Tongariro Crossing. It’s a 19km hike with a 900 climb to pass between two volcanoes, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe plus we added another 5km and another 300m climb to get to one of te peaks. Knackering. The area was used by Peter Jackson as a location for Mount Doom when he was filming the Lord of the Rings films. It was a fabulous walk, but jeez, we’ve got out of shape since leaving South America. . . . . .Lucky the scenery was good !

Here's the view the previous evening and then another of the same mountain once we got up close.









There were some fabulous views on the way back down. On the left are the Emerald Lakes ( you would not want to drink this water ) and on the right is a view all the way back to Lake Taupo.











Here's a quick video vista from the tops.

video

Rotorua


First thing you need to know about Rotorua is that it smells. Bad eggs. Sulphur. A tag-team chuff off with Baz and Lav..

It's about 3 hours drive south from Auckland and it is one of the main geo-thermal areas in New Zealand. The town is surrounded by bubbling mud pools, smelly fumeroles, sulphur pools, geysers, old craters and such like. We visited place called Waimangu Thermal Park and by the time we walked around it, we were ready for something less smelly.......





Which is fortunate, 'cos Rotorua is also the major adrenalin activity centre for the North Island. We decided to raft down the Kaituna River. It was quoted as grade 5 ( which is supposed to be quite bumpy ), but the major selling point was the bit where the raft careers off a seven metre high waterfall. Not too much to say about it, other than have a look at the following sequence of photos..... ( it's us honest ! )


Nice waterfall.




Too late to change our minds...


Touch down !


Submerged somewhere. And breathe !


It's also worth including this photo from a later rapid. The foot poking out of the water on the left of the image is Athena's ! Don't worry folks, we fished her out.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Auckland Part II

On the advice of Joe ( our mate from Leeds who lived here in NZ for several years ) during our posh meal out up the Auckland Skytower ( see photo of me and the Dog bravely standing on the glass floor - Athena and Becky were chicken ! ) we decided to stay an extra day in Auckland.

Joe took us for a 1/2 hour drive out of the city centre and showed off some of the surrounding scenery. First stop was the Karekare beach ( photo on the left ) which is where The Piano was filmed. Apparantly....... I'd never heard of the film....



Next up was the stupendous Piha beach. What a spot. Even better than that was just around the corner through a rock ravine called The Gap. We suddenly had our own private beach with personalised wave machine. Nice warm water too. We had a great time throwing the ball around in the waves, until Joe manage to hit the Dog right in the eye after a deflection from yours truly.....

On the way home we took a short hike up to see Kitekite falls. Beautiful scenery all within a short drive of the city centre, and no crowds......




Here's a bit of vid of our private beach.



video